Charles Ramsey’s Endless, Frustrating War Against Bad Cops
IT WAS TIME for Chuck Ramsey to tell everybody a story. Philadelphia’s police commissioner is an artist behind a podium, as comfortable as an old guitarist on a concert stage, shifting effortlessly between folksy charm and eloquence.
But there was no trace of Ramsey the showman on this July morning in 2014. The conference room in the Chestnut Street headquarters of the U.S. Attorney’s Office was lousy with reporters, all of us speed-reading a jaw-dropping 42-page indictment and pounding out one-sentence highlights on our cell phones. The commissioner stood quietly, looking miserable and exhausted, like a gravedigger at the end of a busy day.
Ramsey told us the case was one of the worst examples of police corruption he’d ever seen. And he’s seen plenty. In a nearly 50-year policing career that has taken him from Chicago to Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, Ramsey has encountered just about every crooked-cop trope imaginable — the drunks, the wife-beaters, the shakedown artists and thieves. He’s kicked at least 160 cops to the curb in Philadelphia alone, but that number really doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Each case is maddening. Each one gnaws at Ramsey.
Some of the lowlights have stood out more than others. In 2010, officer Kenneth Crockett was caught stealing $825 from a Frankford bar while responding to a burglar alarm in the wee hours. Small potatoes, maybe, except for the fact that the bar was Pat’s Café, where officer Gary Skerski took his final steps before a shotgun blasted him in the neck in 2006. A cop ripping off a bar was bad enough, but that bar?
Then there was Ron Dove, a walking, talking plot of a Lifetime movie. After his girlfriend allegedly stabbed her ex-boyfriend to death in 2013, police charge, Dove — a veteran homicide detective — went off the deep end. A grand jury found that he fed one line of bullshit after another to detectives who were investigating the murder, working overtime to cover his girlfriend’s tracks. His acts of devotion allegedly included stashing her car in a garage, secreting her away in a hotel in upstate New York, and supplying her with a burner phone from Walmart. (Dove has yet to go to trial.)
Even the bosses, the people Ramsey relied on to set a straight-and-narrow example, were the source of double-Excedrin migraines. In 2012, the Daily News uncovered a string of sexual harassment allegations that had been leveled against an array of commanding officers, including a captain and two inspectors — all of whom kept climbing the career ladder despite a litany of lawsuits and complaints.
The crime allegations and embarrassing behavior knew no boundaries, which suggested that a larger, systemic problem was plaguing the police department, eating away at its credibility. Were people acting this way because they thought they could get away with it, because they’d watched others do the same before?
That was the poisonous notion Ramsey hoped to dispel for good when he took to that podium in 2014, alongside members of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and excommunicated six Philadelphia narcotics cops from the law-enforcement world — Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, John Speiser, Perry Betts, Michael Spicer and Linwood Norman.
According to the indictment, they weren’t just bad cops; the squad was a Martin Scorcese fever dream come to life. They were accused of beating, robbing and kidnapping suspected drug dealers across the city during a six-year reign of terror, using their badges as battering rams as they pocketed $500,000 worth of cash, drugs and loot. You wouldn’t play ball and tell them where the cash was stashed? Bang! Goodbye, teeth, the indictment alleged. Or maybe you’d be more cooperative after being dangled over the side of an 18th-floor apartment balcony.
This was way more than just a public relations dumpster fire that needed to be stamped out. The entire case shouted not only that corruption was tolerated within the police department, but that it flourished. The arrests of the six officers were supposed to represent something big, a decisive moral victory in a battle Ramsey had been fighting since he got here — a battle for the soul of the department.
Their badges, Ramsey later said. We’ll destroy them. Melt them.
What Ramsey didn’t know, couldn’t know, was that less than a year later, the case would blow up in his face like six sticks of dynamite strapped to Wile E. Coyote. That the squad, acquitted by a jury, would ultimately amble out of court on a sun-soaked spring day as free men, and laugh and cry and hug their families. And get their old jobs back — this being Philadelphia and all.
FOR PUBLIC OFFICIALS, driving down violent crime is job one. Michael Nutter made that much clear when he handed Ramsey the reins eight years ago, when the city seemed like it couldn’t go more than an hour without a body falling to the ground.
But Ramsey had another priority nearly as important: trying like hell to drag the police department into the 21st century. The old model — tough-guy cops who could “make Attila the Hun look like a faggot,” as Frank Rizzo proudly put it decades ago — had to go. Ramsey changed the requirements for becoming a cop. He wanted people who had some college experience and already knew how to drive. He wanted his officers to build meaningful relationships with residents in neighborhoods plagued by poverty and crime — not scare the hell out of them.
This long-overdue reconsideration of what law enforcement should look like is happening in cities across the nation. The policing profession is being forced by the Black Lives Matter movement, progressive political attitudes and a handful of enlightened old heads like Ramsey to reevaluate some of the most basic principles of the job. Car stops, shootings and violent arrests are scrutinized like they’ve never been before, and the mere hint of bad or abusive police behavior can trigger protests and social media firestorms. Ramsey gets that. He’s always gotten that. He knows that every allegation of corruption, of abuse of power, undermines Philadelphia’s faith in its police department.
Ramsey has succeeded in making the city safer. The murder and violent crime rates are still too high, but they’re lower than they’ve been in decades, even considering the recent summer spike. He doesn’t deserve all the credit, but it’s not a coincidence that the numbers have plummeted on his watch. City residents certainly see a correlation. A poll of likely voters earlier this year found 78 percent had a favorable opinion of Ramsey — higher than Nutter, higher than Jim Kenney, higher than even Ed Rendell. Ramsey is the most popular public official in the city. By a lot.
But the fight to change the department’s culture has proven trickier. This one won’t end with a “Mission Accomplished” banner across the front of police headquarters when Ramsey retires in January.
Ramsey reached out to the U.S. Department of Justice for help two years ago, when Philly.com reported that the number of police-involved shootings had reached a 10-year high, even while the number of assaults on police was falling. The DOJ issued a report with 91 recommendations, things like being more transparent about police shootings and providing cops better training about when and how they use force.
The report also underscored how years of corruption scandals had undermined the public’s faith in the department. One thing that didn’t help: The cops who were fired by Ramsey regularly ended up back on the force. The commissioner’s attempts to purge his ranks of those he deemed unfit to wear a badge were thwarted time and again by a potent police union and Philadelphia’s arcane regulations (and sometimes by an uncooperative jury).
The rules of the game worked against Ramsey: The city charter surrounded him with brass he didn’t pick. Rigid civil service rules award promotions based on test scores, not command chops. And he was stuck with an arbitration system that seemed destined to perpetually rule in favor of individual cops, not the welfare of the department.
When Ramsey tried to implement improvements that would align the department more closely with his vision, he slammed over and over into the brick wall that is the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 and its president, John McNesby.
McNesby is easy to caricature: a pair of clenched fists on a squat frame, always itching to knock Ramsey back a few steps. But the truth is more complicated. The way FOP bosses see it, Ramsey set himself up for failure by insisting on dishing out discipline his way, not the way the union’s contract requires it to be handled. In other words: There’s a certain way things get done around here, and no single police chief — no matter how popular — has the power to dictate terms to the union.
If the theme sounds familiar, that’s because it is. In Philadelphia, unions aren’t easily pushed around. And some, like IBEW Local 98, led by John Dougherty, actually do a lot of the pushing. McNesby is building the FOP into a powerhouse that can do the same.
Not coincidentally, local pols haven’t tripped over each other to give Ramsey political cover to rework the system he inherited. The few who tried got blank looks from their colleagues. City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., for instance, said last fall he wanted to make the civilian-run Police Advisory Commission a permanent office with dedicated funding. McNesby rejected the idea outright, telling KYW the union would “talk to our friends on Council.”
None of this is particularly surprising if you have more than a passing familiarity with the way Philadelphia operates. Nutter encountered snarling resistance whenever he tried to bring changes that outsiders could see were obviously needed, like overhauling and updating the city’s zoning code and property tax system, or kicking more funding to schools with the only reliable tool in his belt — new taxes.
The same baked-in stubbornness extends to the police department. You can find individual cops and commanders who don’t believe the attitudes and approaches of 40 years ago make sense today. But as an institution, the department is wary of change.
TWO DECADES BEFORE Ramsey started talking about melting the badges of his top narcotics squad, Philadelphia was fixated on the 39th District scandal. A rogue band of police officers spent years terrorizing drug dealers and innocent people alike in the city’s Nicetown neighborhood, planting drugs on some, stealing cash from others, doling out beat-downs and doing victory dances all over their victims’ civil rights. Six police officers were sent to prison, hundreds of criminal convictions were overturned, and about $4 million in taxpayer money was shelled out to settle a wave of lawsuits.
The scandal made national news, and the city — under intense legal pressure from the ACLU and the NAACP — agreed to reforms, including the creation of the short-lived Integrity and Accountability Office.
Under the direction of Ellen Green-Ceisler, who’s now a city judge, the office put the narcotics bureau under a microscope. Disciplinary practices, Green-Ceisler wrote in a 2002 report, were “lax and inconsistent.” Internal audits were “sporadic and at times ineffective.”
The office’s work was widely praised. But the political establishment wasn’t having it. Then-police commissioner Sylvester Johnson criticized Green-Ceisler and her reports publicly. His boss, then-mayor John Street, backed up his commissioner. And the late NAACP honcho J. Whyatt Mondesire sided with Johnson and Street, declaring that the office had outlived its usefulness.
The city’s movers and shakers couldn’t have been more clear: The police department didn’t need a sharp pair of eyes looking over its shoulder, despite glaring evidence to the contrary. In 2005, the Integrity and Accountability Office was disbanded.
This was the department, and the political culture, that Ramsey walked into after Nutter wooed him over dinner in Washington, D.C., in late 2007.
But Ramsey was no naïf. His career as a cop began in 1967. Those were mad, desperate days in Chicago. In ’68, riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. left 90 police officers injured, 11 residents dead, and dozens more shot by police. Then came the infamous Democratic National Convention, and the televised footage of an army of cops and national guardsmen clobbering anti-war protesters and activists amid plumes of tear gas. Chuck Ramsey had picked a helluva time to become a police officer.
An old vice cop took Ramsey under his wing. “He was a guy who’d been around, so he knew the pitfalls,” the commissioner tells me one day in his office in the police department’s decrepit headquarters on Race Street. “He told me what kind of things to stay away from. He wouldn’t hesitate to really teach you the right way.”
Ramsey moved steadily up through the ranks of Chicago’s predominantly white, Irish police department, which was still debating in the early 1970s if the time had come for black and white cops to ride together in patrol cars.
Two decades after joining the force, Ramsey was a commander in narcotics — and frequently lectured on police ethics to his men and women. “He’d tell them there was a lot of temptation out there, but it was important to stay above the fray,” says Terry Hillard, who, after serving as Ramsey’s narcotics lieutenant, would go on to become Chicago’s police superintendent from 1998 to 2003. “He used to say that if you go out there and do something inappropriate, not only are you affecting your career, you’re affecting the reputation of the Chicago police department, and you’re harming your kids, your wife, your mom and dad.”
Ramsey carried those ideals with him when he moved on from Chicago to Washington, D.C. Police corruption was a huge issue there, too, and Ramsey often found himself at odds with the local police union as he tried to weed out scores of bad apples.
When he got to Philadelphia, Ramsey was knocked sideways by a series of crises. Four police officers were killed in the line of duty during his first 10 months in town — a total that would double in following years. The deaths were wrenching, each one a chasm of grief that never closed.
And then there were the pressure cookers created by the force he led. In May 2008, a news helicopter filmed a group of officers beating three suspects while investigating a shooting in North Philly. The story immediately went national.
Ramsey acted decisively. He fired four of the cops involved in the fracas. He literally stood alone as he announced their dismissals — no show of support from top brass, the Mayor or anyone else. He certainly didn’t have the backing of the FOP, which roundly criticized Ramsey for canning men who, the union argued, had just been doing their jobs. District Attorney Lynne Abraham handed the investigation over to a grand jury, which concluded that the men had used justifiable force. The firings were later overturned.
This would become a pattern with Ramsey. Cops would act in ways he considered unacceptable, he would fire them — and the system would reverse his calls and reinstate the officers. You wonder: Were the city’s political leaders mostly silent because they disagreed with Ramsey’s tough line on abuse and corruption? Or simply because they knew how the story would end?
In 2010, I wrote in the Daily News about Ramsey’s penchant for abruptly firing cops before formal investigations were complete. Ramsey called me the day the story ran, sounding pretty agitated.
“Look, I have a cop on the force who might have forced someone to give him a blow job,” he sighed. “I mean, come on.” He was referring to officer Michael Paige, who was fired and arrested for allegedly forcing a man to perform oral sex on him while Paige was on duty in Fairmount Park. Paige — whose defense hinged in part on insisting that he routinely had consensual sex with women in the park — beat the case and got his job back through arbitration.
I saw another glimpse of that simmering frustration in 2011, when I wrote about Anthony Magsam, an officer in the Firearms Identification Unit who was being investigated in the theft of a handful of automatic weapons parts. Numerous FIU cops cooperated with Internal Affairs, but the case appeared to go nowhere for more than a year. It just so happened that Magsam’s mother was a longtime police sergeant who was married to a retired chief inspector, and there were layers of overlapping relationships between other cops involved with the case. Magsam ended up quitting the force before the investigation was completed, and several supervisors from the FIU and Internal Affairs were transferred and suspended.
In the middle of it all, Ramsey invited me to a meeting at police headquarters with two deputy commissioners, one of whom oversaw Internal Affairs. I ran through the information I’d spent months collecting: In addition to the Magsam matter, there were other problems in the unit, from missing guns to questions over exactly how a backlog of evidence was whittled down. The deputies were all poker faces and shoulder shrugs, insisting this was news to them. Ramsey shot the men a withering glance, then said: “Why the fuck does he know about this and we don’t?”
ON A HUMID morning in September, uniformed cops and dozens of retirees followed a winding industrial road to the FOP’s sprawling 50,000-square-foot headquarters in the Far Northeast. They quickly filled up a deep, well-lit hall that had a simple stage with a wooden podium at one end. Standing there nervously was Martina White, a freshman Republican state representative who won her seat in a springtime special election, thanks in large part to the political muscle of McNesby and the FOP. Reading from a sheet of paper, White told the cops and retirees that she was introducing a bill — just her second — that would bar the release of the names of police officers involved in shootings. Only those cops found, after lengthy investigation, to have actually committed a prosecutable crime would have their names revealed if White’s bill becomes law.
The rebuke was clear. Months earlier, Ramsey had announced that the department would begin identifying officers involved in shootings within three days of the incident. The move was long overdue, and a policy that numerous police departments across the country have adopted with little to no fuss. Cops, Ramsey said, are public servants, and they can’t expect to remain anonymous when they shoot a citizen, no matter the circumstances. To insist otherwise — as he himself did in the wake of the controversial fatal police shooting last December of Brandon Tate-Brown — only inflamed civil rights activists and relatives of the dead.
“Insane and absurd,” McNesby said of Ramsey’s new policy, once White stepped aside from the union hall podium. He worked the crowd into a frenzy, tapping into their worst fears. Criminals could track down their families, he warned. It didn’t take much imagination to fill in the blanks.
It didn’t matter that according to Ramsey, there hadn’t been any reports of that actually happening. McNesby’s words were met with thunderous applause, and even a few shouts of “Amen!” McNesby is awfully effective at painting with a broad brush that leaves little room for nuanced debate. Police officers are good guys, and they mostly deal with bad guys. End of story.
McNesby has made his good guys — rank-and-file cops — more politically powerful than they’ve been since the days of Rizzo. “We’re the largest labor organization in Philadelphia,” he says when I speak with him this summer. “We don’t flaunt it. We’re methodical. We know what we’re doing, and we’ve become very good at it over the last eight years.”
In 2011, the union sued the city for the right to make political campaign contributions, something it had long been barred from doing. The FOP’s PAC has spun up quickly, donating almost $17,000 to local politicians in the past year alone, including $11,500 to Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney. And McNesby has done spectacularly well by his members at the bargaining table; he says that on his watch, Philly’s FOP has led police unions across the country in wage and benefit increases.
But the public probably knows McNesby best as the guy who pushes back whenever he feels cops are getting crucified. No matter how loud the outcry over a set of allegations or disturbing video coverage, he sticks to a simple, effective script: The media, the activists and even Ramsey are all in a rush to judge and punish his guys, he says, and reminds everyone just how dangerous and ugly police work can be.
Kelvyn Anderson, the executive director of the Police Advisory Commission, has had an up-close look at the complicated relationship Ramsey and McNesby share. “A lot of people [in law enforcement] view him as a real light in the darkness,” Anderson says of Ramsey. “And John justifiably needs to represent his folks. But a lot of the changes we need in policing now require some balancing. This notion that whatever a group of union folks says goes, in terms of policing, can be a problem.”
McNesby has his limits. He won’t defend cops caught in what he considers clear criminality. And even he shakes his head from time to time at the dead quiet on the other side of the Blue Wall of Silence. When Crockett was arrested for stealing the pile of cash from Pat’s Café, “People said, ‘Oh, he was doing that for years,’” McNesby tells me. “Well, why the fuck didn’t anybody tell us, or let somebody know?”
Yet McNesby flinched whenever Ramsey tried to pry at a brick in the wall. You expect that from a union boss. That’s the job. And while it’s not surprising that Martina White would draft legislation favorable to the FOP after it played a role in her election, it is interesting that no other politicians had Ramsey’s back.
“This is a strong union,” Ramsey says. “I’m not trying to lay all the problems at the feet of the union, but I do think they have too much control over some of the operational issues that ultimately hurt the department.”
Ramsey isn’t the first top cop to feel that way. John Timoney lamented how hard it was to discipline rogue cops when he ran the Philadelphia police department from 1998 to 2002. “It’s a fucking joke,” he told me several years ago. He’d spent his earlier career in New York City, where the commissioner’s authority over discipline isn’t in question. Philly? An alternate universe where the laws of gravity didn’t apply and cops who got fired inevitably returned to duty — once the FOP weighed in.
Arbitrators side with the cops, and against the department, about 70 percent of the time, according to the FOP. “It’s hard not to have a high batting average,” McNesby chortles. “It would be like Dave Kingman going against a Little Leaguer.”
THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN Ramsey’s and McNesby’s perspectives are most stark in the department’s narcotics bureau. Like Ramsey, McNesby worked in narcotics back when he wore a uniform.
Narcotics is unglamorous work, but it’s rife with temptation. Cops routinely handle large amounts of cash that flow in and out of a pipeline that never ends. Ramsey’s worry is that if you spend enough time in that environment, fighting a war that can’t be won, eventually you slip and take a little off the top, because why not?
Ramsey wanted authority to rotate cops in and out of the unit, but the union contract wouldn’t let him — and McNesby, who worked 14 years in the city’s narcotics bureau, wouldn’t budge. He rejects the idea that narcotics is inherently problematic.
Those opposing views collided in the Liciardello case.
For years, Narcotics Field Unit South was regarded as the city’s best. Some of the unit’s peers described it as relentlessly hardworking, the engine behind the big drug and weapons busts the department’s higher-ups loved to brag about at press conferences. But the unit had already been eyed twice by the FBI, and a few years ago, federal prosecutors quietly stopped taking cases that involved some members of the squad. In December 2012, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams did the same, informing Ramsey he would no longer accept cases involving Liciardello, Reynolds, Speiser, Betts, Spicer, and one of their supervisors, Lieutenant Robert Otto. The D.A.’s office began dismissing cases by the truckload, and Ramsey had to bench the now-maligned cops.
In July 2014, the other shoe dropped, and the Liciardello squad was indicted by a federal grand jury.
Their arrests were as dramatic as some of the allegations in the charging document. Defense attorney Jack McMahon, who represented Reynolds, says he offered to bring the cops in as soon as the indictment was official. “Despite that offer, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office decided to play Eliot Ness,” he says. “They went into their homes in the early morning hours with guns like they were taking Osama bin Laden. … There was no need to do that in front of their families. In my mind, it was done to embarrass them, to intimidate them.”
But the indictment! It’s not often the feds produce a document that actually takes your breath away. That might sound like an exaggeration, but consider this excerpt about the squad’s encounter with a suspected drug dealer identified as “J.K.” in North Philly on February 24, 2010. The episode starts with the squad using a sledgehammer to enter his apartment. Once inside, according to the indictment, Spicer went to work on J.K., “knocking out some of his lower teeth, and held J.K. over a balcony from approximately thirty feet off the ground in an effort to learn the location of drugs and money inside the apartment.” But wait, it gets better: The indictment claimed the squad seized $210,000 from the apartment but pocketed $79,000 — and one of J.K.’s Calvin Klein suits. The allegations went on like that, one after another — disturbing glimpses of life in a world of unchecked greed and power.
At the press conference announcing the indictments, Ramsey was joined by U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger and Edward Hanko, then special agent in charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia division. Both men heaped additional scorn on the soon-to-be ex-cops. Even Mayor Nutter, who’d mostly remained silent over the police department’s past public embarrassments, jumped in and decried the cops as “scumbags.”
This wasn’t the New Day, New Way he’d promised after taking office in 2008. This case sounded an awful lot like old Philadelphia, the one that rolled its eyes at the corrupt-and-contented label and kept on doing its thing. The feds’ case could have been a huge and lasting blow to the idea that the city and the police force still tolerate such deplorable behavior. And anyone who wanted to see that message get sent had to feel good, because the feds don’t go to trial unless they’re pretty damn sure they’ll win.
Instead, the feds lost — convincingly.
Prosecutors had no choice but to put a series of drug dealers and other witnesses of dubious repute on the stand. “Look, you don’t call the Boy Scouts of America to get information about who’s dealing crack down the street,” Ramsey says. “You deal with people who are in that world.”
But jurors weren’t inclined to trust the muddled testimony of people in that world — not when a uniformed Captain America look-alike such as Chief Inspector Chris Werner and other bosses took the stand and declared the accused cops the finest officers they ever had the pleasure of leading. At one point, a federal investigator admitted that one of the squad’s supervisors hadn’t been interviewed prior to the indictment because the investigator wasn’t sure he’d be honest. That helped the defendants’ cause, but it also served as a depressing reminder for Ramsey that he couldn’t trust everyone in his command staff.
Jeff Walker, the feds’ supposed star witness — an admitted dirty cop who’d been a member of the squad — was shredded on the stand by the defense, which proved that seemingly damning text messages Walker received from Liciardello were actually several years old, and had nothing to do with the federal case.
On May 14th, the jury returned with the verdict: not guilty. The men were acquitted on all counts.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to discuss the case in depth. But in an emailed statement, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Louis Lappen wrote: “We have convicted more than a dozen corrupt officers of federal crimes, including drug distribution, loansharking, extortion, and robbing drug dealers.” If you read between the lines, there’s an urgent message: This kind of corruption is real. We didn’t dream it up.
HOURS AFTER the verdict was handed down, Liciardello started talking about getting his old job back. A week later, Jimmy Binns, one of the squad’s defense attorneys, announced that he was appointing the former narcotics officers grand marshals of the Hero Thrill Show, an annual parade and fund-raiser for the kids of cops and firefighters killed in the line of duty.
Binns changed his mind on the parade. But the cops won their jobs back in arbitration — plus a year’s back pay.
They couldn’t get anywhere near narcotics, though. And they couldn’t plausibly testify against a criminal defendant in court, not after the D.A. deemed them unreliable. Local judges, meanwhile, are still tossing out old cases in which those officers testified. The number of overturned and dismissed cases hit 450 over the summer and will probably continue to climb.
The city has already paid out close to $800,000 to settle civil lawsuits filed against the squad, and at least 150 more have to be dealt with. If that wasn’t bad enough, Liciardello, Reynolds, Speiser, Spicer, Norman and Betts filed a lawsuit of their own in July, against Ramsey, Williams and Nutter — for defamation. To top it off, according to a source quoted in the Daily News, Betts flunked a drug test as part of a medical examination to get back on the force and promptly retired before he could be fired a second time.
But the fallout went beyond waves of lawsuits, settlements and court actions. This case was supposed to be the mother of all warnings to cops everywhere about the consequences of bad behavior. Ramsey had promised to destroy the squad’s badges … and instead, the officers were rehired a year later. What kind of a message does that send?
And if McMahon and the other defense attorneys are right, if the feds wildly overreached and tried six innocent cops on flimsy accusations, how can the average citizen have faith that the justice system can keep its house in order?
Back in Ramsey’s office, when I ask him about the verdict, his tone is flat — it is what it is and all that. But when I suggest that city residents have come to accept big police scandals as inevitable, a switch flips inside him.
“I just think we’re too accepting of certain things here. You know, ‘Oh, these things happen,’” he says. “Bullshit! It shouldn’t happen.” For Ramsey, every local corruption scandal feeds into the larger story of law enforcement in America. He reaches back into history, arguing the connection between lawmen who chased down runaway slaves in the 1800s, cops who beat civil rights activists in the 1960s, and those who’ve been caught on cell-phone cameras shooting civilians. “When you talk about policing today, and the lack of communication and trust in some communities of color … you have to recognize the past if you want to move forward,” he says. “You can’t do that if you aren’t considered legitimate, and what hurts our legitimacy are these corruption cases.”
Odds are, the next mayor will fill the huge hole created by Ramsey’s retirement with deputy commissioner Richard Ross Jr., an eloquent, thoughtful guy who’s been preparing for the big job for the past decade. But whoever ends up calling the shots from the third floor of the Roundhouse will have to be prepared for a lot of soul-searching conversations with citizens, rank-and-file cops and, yes, the FOP.
Across the country, people are reconsidering what, exactly, police work should look like. You can chart some of what’s changed just by looking at Ramsey’s tenure. He arrived here under a mayor who was calling for a state of emergency and promising a heavier police presence to violence-weary voters: More cops on the street! More stop-and-frisk! More arrests! Eight years later, the department is telling cops to hold movie nights for kids and organize neighborhood cleanups of trash-strewn lots.
After a decade’s worth of ride-alongs and countless interviews with beat cops and detectives, I believe that most wear their badges for the right reasons. They want to help people — not live out Training Day fantasies — and go home to their families at the end of the day.
But there’s no question that moving the police department forward will require coming to terms with its past, and figuring out why we keep encountering the same ethical problems over and over again. There’s no simple fix for a problem this old. But some help could be found in ideas the department and union have already rejected. Allowing the Office of Integrity and Accountability to close and fighting any effort to bolster the Police Advisory Commission read like the defensive moves of an organization with something to hide.
The next mayor and commissioner will have to ask themselves what the department can do to increase transparency and rebuild community trust. Ramsey has shown that a police chief can acknowledge that his force has deep-rooted problems without enraging the rank and file. This counts as progress. Anything more will require political support that goes beyond mere platitude, and an FOP that’s willing to admit there are systemic problems that need solving. Because God knows we don’t want the next commissioner to spend as much time as Ramsey has alone, behind the podium, telling stories no one wants to hear.
Published as “Ramsey’s War” in the November 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.